Why Facebook has won the mobile photo war

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From the early days of the commercial web, one thing has been clear: photos are big on the Internet. All of us love photos. We love taking photos. We love sharing photos. They are the basic unit of digital emotion. Facebook understood this early on, and knew that when combined with its social graph, photos could be their one-way ticket to unending engagement and thus commercial success. Instagram was attacking Facebook’s Achilles’ heel — mobile photo sharing — so they bought the company, for a billion dollars. And in doing so, Facebook has pretty much won the war for mobile photo sharing.

When the news broke this past weekend that picplz, a mobile photo sharing app and service, was shutting down, it was a rude reminder of the Darwinian nature of the mobile app landscape. And picplz isn’t going to be the only mobile photo app to vanish into the mists of time. The reason for their misfortunes is none other than Facebook.

Picture Perfect

There are two main reasons why Facebook is a dominant Internet company. One, it is the first cross-platform and truly global identity provider. Second, it is the most constantly updated photo album on the planet. That is why photos are Facebook’s lifeblood.

Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service – read, listen, watch. But in the end, it’s the photos that work wonders for the Mountain View Menlo Park, Calif.-based social-networking giant.

One of the biggest (and many) shortcomings of Facebook’s mobile app  is that it wasn’t simple enough for us to snap photos, share them and engage around them. Instead, what we got was a tired, convoluted little app. Facebook being Facebook knew that and had been quietly working on a mobile photo-sharing app called Camera that currently works on the iPhone.

The release of the Camera app came a few weeks after Facebook announced that it was going to acquire Instagram for about $1 billion in stock and cash. While many were confused as to why Facebook would have two mobile photo apps, in reality, it is a masterful move by Mark Zuckerberg & Company. Let me explain.

Private + Public Partnership

Facebook’s Camera app is a useful tool for seeing, sharing and interacting with photos that are part of your private social graph. Sure, you can share them publicly, but the app is meant to capitalize on our personal and private social graph. With nearly 900 million subscribers, Facebook is pretty much a giant here.

Buying Instagram brought Facebook access to the public graph. Instagram is more like Twitter thanks to its “follow” model. If your account is public, anyone can follow you, but you don’t need to follow them back. Instagram has grown rapidly to over 50 million people mostly because of this asynchronous model. Thus, when it comes to mobile photo sharing, Facebook now owns both private and public graphs and, as such, is on its way to dominating the mobile photo-sharing market.

In order to understand Facebook and the role photos play for the service, check out these stats:

  •  In August 2011, there were over 250 million photos uploaded each day
  • On average more than 300 million photos were uploaded to Facebook per day in the three months ended March 31, 2012.

The NPD Group estimates that in 2011 smartphones accounted for about 27 percent of all photos and videos we snapped, up from 17 percent in 2010. Now imagine when there are many more easy-to-use smartphones out there. Photo overload! And Facebook currently is one of the few companies that has the scale and size to store that many photos — an advantage that cannot be dismissed or overcome easily.

The New York Times art critic wrote a wonderful essay, Everyone’s Lives, in Pictures (I wrote something similar last year) where she quotes  Susan Sontag as writing:

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

In the time of Facebook, that message is amplified. And the best is yet to come, some experts say.

Twitter vs Photos

As Facebook has shown, people love engaging and interacting with photos more than simple text. With Instagram, Facebook can start to take some attention away from Twitter, and that can’t be a good thing for the San Francisco-based company.

I am always confounded that Twitter hasn’t built a Twitter-only photo sharing app and instead has chosen to work with third parties for photo sharing. It is a mistake that can come and bite them later in their life. I would argue that in time, Instagram’s public graph can become as big–if not bigger–than Twitter itself. Like I said, there are more people likely to share and like photos than write tweets.

As I said earlier, if you look beyond Facebook and Instagram, if you look at the recent success of Pinterest, you know that pictures are big on the Internet. Why? Because we all love photos. Everyone can take photos and share them with their friends. Photos are meant to elicit emotion. And they are inherently social.

Unfortunately, that was a lesson not learned by Google and Yahoo, both of which had opportunities to turn their successful photo-based web properties into the beginnings of a social revolution. Google owns Picasa, while Yahoo owned Flickr, arguably one of the most influential web companies of the post dot-com era. Today’s social behaviors, the emergence of community, usage of meta-tags, a simple “follow” model and, of course, social validation were some of the key contributions of Flickr to the web.

Gizmodo, in a recent post, outlined how Yahoo mismanaged Flickr. (Thomas Hawk, a longtime member of Flickr, has a wonderful, if somewhat less read, response to the Gizmodo story that is worth reading.) If Flickr had embraced the post-iPhone mobile, Yahoo might have owned the mobile photo opportunity. Ironically, pre-iPhone, when Nokia was well known for its camera phones, Yahoo/Flickr were a pretty big deal in the mobile. But that is the way of the big companies — there is a desire to boil the ocean and build a big solution when the actual opportunity is right under their noses.

For Facebook, photos are no joke. The company will do whatever it takes to keep us engaged with photos. And as for other also-ran photo services, the reality is that like picplz, they will not even be footnotes in the history of technology.

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